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An Agile Business Q&A Session with Oracle’s Roland Smart

Roland Smart joined Oracle as part of the company’s acquisition of Involver back in July. Today, he serves as VP of Social Marketing, overseeing a range of programs supporting the Oracle marketer and developer communities. Previous to Involver, Smart headed up marketing teams at both Sprout and Adaptive Path, and picked up some brand-side experience at Adina For Life.

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to pick his brain for some Agile Business nuggets late last month. Here’s what we found:

MJ:  The exact definition of Agile often seems to depend on who you’re talking to. What’s yours?

Smart: From my perspective, Agile is grounded in the process of establishing short feedback loops that drive iteration, validation, and ultimately innovation. I see it as a cultural practice that serves as an alternative to a strategy practice. As such, it tends to focus on the “now” rather than the future. When combined with strategic practices I believe that it adds to the resilience of my team and what we produce.

MJ: Focusing on the “now” seems to mean constant content, listening, curating and targeting.

Smart: While I prefer the word “continuous” I think you’re touching on the reality that products are like sharks, if they stop moving they die. That said, the  “constancy” with which Agile is applied (e.g. the rate of iteration) depends on the scale and maturity of the product in question.

For example, when bootstrapping a new product with a small user base iteration cycles will be fast and furious. With new products there tends to be enormous pressure to show promise quickly. On the other hand, when working on a well established product with a giant user base iteration cycles will be less frequent and balanced with many other investments. Of course, the other dimension that effects the rate of iteration is the size of the team working on the product in question.

Because of the way that Agile works, it’s hard to promise exactly where you’ll be on a certain date. Many marketers are acclimated to waterfall product releases and events that are scheduled well in advance and have clear deadlines associated with them. Agile does not fit well into this framework and requires that we shift from a campaign based mindset to a programmatic one. In practice, this may simply mean shifting how we position our product at the deadline. When we move to a programatic mindset a campaign is really just the next iteration of a structured experience that can be improved based on feedback.

MJ: The word “Agile” has managed to make its way into several processes — development, marketing and now engagement. Why exactly do you think that is, and are there any basic principles that apply across all three of these departments?

Smart: I’ve really seen Agile move from the product side of the house into product management, then product marketing and finally into marketing in general. As a product oriented marketer I think I started gravitating to Agile because I saw the results that it produced on the product side first hand.

At the same time, marketers are being forced to become increasingly technical as we fully embrace digital/social marketing. Gartner recently released research which projects that CMOs will control as much budget for technology as CTOs do within a matter of years. As more technical resources make their way into the marketing organization they will bring contemporary development practices with them and that means Agile in many cases. I think Agile will transform in these different contexts though. As one example, I do not think there is a 1-to-1 translation of pair programming in the marketing context though this is essential to software development.

MJ: You’ve gone from small start-up to giant corporation. What kind of difference does company size make in Agile?

Smart: As context, I am responsible for the Oracle Technical Network (OTN) team that serves as the liaison between Oracle and the largest developer community in the world. That said, based on my experience working with other large communities I don’t think Agile changes in practice with the size of the user base or community.

I think the more relevant change is that Oracle is a public company and has significantly more process in place. While I have been given tremendous freedom, I think working at a giant corporation will slow iteration cycles as we drive through approval processes that are set up for waterfall. Overtime, with the assimilation many new companies that practice Agile I think this will evolve.

MJ: One of the most talked about elements of Agile is failure — how it’s okay to make mistakes, so long as you don’t make them twice. Do you agree with this line of thinking? After all, we all know that just one mistake can cause a PR disaster.

Smart: I think it’s how you fail that matters. When you move cyclically from iteration to validation and back to iteration the failures are small and incremental. Failing in this context is unlikely to create a PR disaster particularly if your user base is acclimated to the process over time, given adequate warning, and given clear channels to provide feedback.

(Like what you’re reading? I don’t blame you. I met Roland at a Jackalope Session back in April, and can therefore personally attest to his cool factor. If you’d like more proof, however, you should check out his social marketing practices blog here.)

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